Alexander Ullman plays the Moonlight Sonata at St Mary’s Perivale Beethoven cycle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Alexander Ullman (piano). Live-streamed from St Mary’s Perivale, London, 3.10.2020. (JB)

Alexander Ullman

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op.27, No.2

I have chosen a slightly different format for this review – the open letter gives me the opportunity to question my judgement; and above all for Alex to question that judgement. He is as intellectually sharp as he is gifted musically. 

Dear Alex,

It is a good while since I last heard you play. Wasn’t it in one of the noble palaces in South Lazio where you stunned even yourself by playing an encore of the Stravinsky Petrushka? So, it was a pleasure to tune into your performance today. I am sure that you agree that Hugh Mather’s programming of thirty-two young pianists playing the thirty-two Beethoven sonatas was a wonderful idea. And realised with all St Mary’s Perivale’s professionalism.

It was nothing to do with Beethoven that Op.27, No.2 has become known as the Moonlight Sonata since a German music critic is to blame. The tag might have had some appeal to the old school piano teachers such as Gladys Puttick (1901–1996) who in my youth at Trinity College of Music seemed to be forever invoking her charges to think of beautiful moonlight. Vera Kantrovich, in charge of chamber music, and ever down to earth, would sigh, smile, and shake her head in embarrassment at the invocation.

But nor does the Yamaha piano help the moonlight cause, wouldn’t you say? (At the end of the day might it be wrong to dismiss Miss Puttick and her likes entirely?) There is something uncompromisingly steely about Yamaha pianos. O Fazioli where art thou? You seemed to be having a bit of bother getting the sound you wanted out of this instrument. Am I right?

It seems to me that struggle has no place in this first movement. For me it is the most difficult movement to bring off. But it is too easy to get uncalled for bumps along this road of tranquillity. Does that last word take us back to moonlight?

O how I enjoyed the perkiness of your Allegretto! Wonderful Ullman cheek served on a gold plate.

If Beethoven had sat down and written the Presto specifically for your talents he couldn’t have done better. It is always a pleasure when you challenge yourself. As I said after Petrushka your demons become your angels when you dare to let them out of their bag. When I asked you if you had some Russian blood you replied with a wry smile, with sweat still pouring off you, Worse! It’s Slavonic. So, viva Slovenia on loan to Beethoven!

I hear too that you have picked up that very valuable Igor Levit trick of pizzicato especially in the cantabile passages of the finale. And the slowdown in the cadenzetta was yet more delightful Ullman cheek.

So dear Captain Ullman you are firmly in charge of your magnificent ship. Your pianistic authority is comfortably in place. Well maybe not exactly comfortably. There are the demons to take into account. But I hear that you have now made a good deal with them too, so that they are eating out of your fingers.

In ordinary concert conditions you would have been called back for a virtuoso encore. But never mind. The St Mary’s Perivale concert recordings are first-rate. And your contribution will remain available for another month. And beyond.

Keep well Alex and my greetings to your angels as well as your demons.

Jack (Buckley)

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